Guayaquil, Ecuador

We spent the weekend following our stay at the plantain farm at a handsome beach town named Los Pedernales, drinking alchoholic masterpieces that took twenty times as long to make as they did to drink. We returned to El Carmen mid-Sunday having been burnt to crisps by the equatorial sun, to say goodbye to Sra. Nina and her family.

We were about to spend a week with our first private school of our tour.  The director had offered us free room and board in her daughter house, directly adjacent to the school.  Tamara, our host, welcomed us warmly and we instantly felt at home. Mancha, however, did not.  On the account of there being no chickens to molest or other dogs to manch (it´s a verb now), she quickly accumulated a reserve of nervous energy that she channeled into a psychotic fugue at every mealtime.  From the moment the pan hit the stove, she would wedge her little face under the patio door and scream as if being tortured.  When we inevitably let her in she would do spastic cartwheels under the table, howling uncontrollably; halfway through the week she even started defying gravity and scaling our pant legs to get at the food. This ruined every meal, and moreover our good graces with Tamara.

Trying to reconcile Mancha´s maniacal hunger and Tamara´s growing frustration was a strain on all of us.  I personally hit rock bottom when, out of pure desperation, I got down on my hands and knees and started barking back at her.  It shocked her into silence for three seconds, but of course it didn’t change her behavior.  Nothing did.

On Monday we began working with Berta Delgado private school.  The difference in the quality of education between public and private schools in Ecuador is drastic.  On the plantain farm, we had worked with a public school so underserved by the government that the one person that worked there couldn´t take a sick day without cancelling school.  According to Sra. Nina, the students there were so starved for education that they made a calendar to count the days until Summer 2012, when we had promised to return.

In contrast, Berta Delgado had a complete faculty of highly dedicated professors.  They worked closely with the director, Sra. Mariana, to coordinate the curriculum and ensure that each student felt attended to and supported.  The class sizes were reasonable (as opposed to the public school downj the road, which had a 70:1 ratio of students to teachers).  The level of literacy was far superior to what we were used to, and their homework was always completed thoughtfully and with creative flair.  Perhaps most telling was that the teachers of all of the other schools in El Carmen sent their kids to Berta Delgado.

Improbably, this school had also scheduled a belated Mother´s Day celebration, giving us another perfect opportunity to present the student´s work.  Having already learned the hard way in Cotopaxi, we ignored the director’s suggestion to compose songs on the theme of “Mothers”; the students ultimately chose the topics “Animals”, “Home”, and “Love”.  Writing music with them was a pleasure. We had the support of the teachers, a deadline to inspire hard-work and focus, and a great group of kids.  They showed true initiative in the classroom – they really seemed to enjoy learning.

We had been further exploring the idea of teaching English through music, and had found using visual aides to be an effective component our vocab-building repetoire.  As a compliment to the “Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders…”, we had gotten into the practice of drawing diagrams of each other, with the pertinent parts labeled. At one point, I drew this picture of Karen.

She took one look at it and responded, “Are you trying to draw me like an scary elf?  Just for that I´m going to make your nose bigger.”  Which of course is exactly what an scary elf would do.

In the middle of the week we visited another private school.  It had a gorgeous campus, served grades 1-12, and propogated the teachings of Jesus.  We made a 40 minute presentation there, after which the students unanimously requested an encore.  Flattered, we obliged.  Three encores later we realized that they were just procrastinating on going back to class, so we took a bow and left.

The Mother´s Day celebration was impressive, for several reasons.  Almost all of the parents were there, as well as brothers, sisters, and alumni that had graduated years ago.  More than 300 people were in attendance to support the students and their creativity.  The teachers had erected a stage with floodlights, hired a professional sound engineer, and had constructed several backdrops for the school play.  Most memorable was the poster of the director with a random person of color holding a baby, which (in her own words) was designed to convey how modern the school was.

Our part of the presentation went as well as we had hoped.  There was microphone on my banjo, and another mic that the students passed amongst themselves like perfect angels.  The songs we had written together were strong, and they sang with extra confidence because they knew it.

After our three classes had presented, they refused to return to their seats, protesting “Hokey Pokey!  Hokey Pokey!”.  What could we do but play it, and then segue into “Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes”?  It was during this last part that I had an out of body experience.  Karen was leading the dance with the kids on the ground, I alone remained on stage. In one, wierd instant I realized that everything I had done in my life had led me to this moment; that I was playing banjo and singing the “Hokey Pokey” for 300+ Ecuadorians through a concert-grade PA system, and for the first time ever I thought “what the hell am I doing with my life?” in a good way, and began laughing hysterically inside my own head.

The grand finale was a ballet, presented by the girls in grades 5-7.  Their level of proficiency alone demonstrated beyond any doubt the superiority of an Ecuadorian private school education.  These kids really were cared for, and were thriving.

Unfortunately, our video camera died a mysterious and tragic death the night before the concert, so we don´t have any documentation of their songs.  We are working hard to track down people that filmed the event, because their performance was truly impressive and deserves to be seen.

The next day we left for Guayaquil, a city that feels like home.  In a bad way.  Malls, gated communities, manicured parks and chain restaurants line the streets.   We only have seen the area by the airport, so admittedly we have no idea of what´s actually going on here, but so far it feels a lot like Deleware.  Unfortunately, they don´t allow guns or roller skates here so I guess my plans for the weekend are shot.

And… so concludes the first half of our story.  We are exactly halfway through the trip.  Tomorrow we are celebrating by embarking on a totally gratuitous, week-long trip to the Galapagos with Karen´s mom.  We don´t plan to encourage any arts there, but I guess you never know.

If anyone is still (or ever was) following our Mancha subplot, we decided to keep her.  She becomes (barring unforeseen disasters) a U.S. citizen on June 8th, when we ship her home with Karen´s mom to run, play, and wait for us on Long Island.  We already miss her little, barking head.